By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 15, 2010
In our “What It Takes” series (adjacent), we’re getting into the inside stuff of publishing, marketing and promoting The Profession, my upcoming novel. Here, for a look at the other side, is an event from the writing of the book. Here is every writer’s worst nightmare:
When it crashes. When the wheels come off smack in the middle of the project—and you’re left dazed by the side of the road, staring at the smoking wreckage of your work.
That happened with this book. Last Christmas, two years into it. I thought I was finished. I thought the book was done. I thought it was terrific. I gave it to a trusted colleague. He read it and hated it. Let me rephrase that: he HATED it.
Hate, I can handle. The problem was, my friend was right. He pointed out a fundamental flaw in the concept of the book–and that flaw was fatal. I had no idea how to fix it. I didn’t think it could be fixed.
I panicked. I lost all perspective. I forgot that I had written The War of Art. I forgot that I had read The War of Art. I freaked. I went into an emotional tailspin that took months to pull out of.
There’s a story of the great Theban general, Epaminondas, who was the first commander ever to beat the Spartans—at Leuctra in 371 B.C. On the eve of battle, Epaminondas called his warriors together and told them that he could guarantee victory tomorrow if they would obey just one command of his, when he issued it. The soldiers of course clamored Yes, yes, tell us what you want. “When you hear my trumpet tomorrow,” said Epaminondas, “give me one more foot. Do you understand? Summon your strength and push the foe back, just one foot.”
The battle came. The two phalanxes locked up, shield against shield, in the center of the battlefield. Both sides were heaving and pushing, seeking to gain the advantage. Epaminondas watched and waited. Endless minutes passed. The warriors’ legs were cramping, their knees gave out, but still both sides shoved and strained against each other, trying to break their opponent’s will. Finally the moment of supreme exhaustion came. Epaminondas sounded the trumpet. His warriors remembered their promise of the night before; they summoned their final reserves of strength and pushed back the Spartans just one foot. That did it. The enemy ranks broke. The battle was won.
The point of the story is that each of us, as artistic and entrepreneurial warriors, must wade into battle knowing that the moment will come when total defeat is staring us in the face. It happens on every project. A movie, a record album, a new business, a philanthropic enterprise … at some point our funding will vanish, our star will run off to Argentina, our software will crash, the whole shooting match will go up in flames.
On The Profession I forgot. I wasn’t ready. When the fatal moment came, it was the enemy who was pushing me back. I was the one throwing away my spear and shield and running for the hills.
The Marines have a mantra for moments like this: “Work the problem.” I was too flipped to do that. I couldn’t take my own advice. I acted like an amateur, not a pro. I forgot everything.
What finally turned things around? In the end, it came down to a simple technical fix. Simple, but incredibly difficult to get to. After running around in emotional circles for two or three months, I finally calmed down enough to address the actual problem. Here’s what it was:
The Profession is set in the future. But I hadn’t set it far enough into the future. The story happened only ten years out. The result was that events in the narrative were too close to current; they touched too many immediate political and emotional nerves. The too-near time period made it impossible for the reader to willingly suspend disbelief. The story read like a polemic, not like a page-turning yarn.
The answer was to move the story out another ten or twelve years. I picked the year 2032. At one stroke, this solved all problems. The events of the story were now distant enough to establish and maintain their own integrity. I could write about the third Iran-Iraq War; I could describe the Emergency Powers Act of 2024. The reader could willingly suspend disbelief; he wasn’t being constantly called to mentally fact-check or to defend his own political point of view circa 2011.
So: back to the drawing board. Three-fifths of the story went into the trash; two-fifths could be salvaged and reconfigured. It took nine months to write the new stuff.
The Profession became the hardest book I’ve ever written. It really took me to the edge. Will it surprise you when I report that the book crashed a second time, six months later?
Crash #2 was easier to handle. This time I remembered Epaminondas’s trumpet.
What’s the moral of this tale? It’s this: if anyone reading this post is tempted to look up to me, for whatever reason, and to imagine that I’ve somehow got this writing thing wired … please disabuse yourself of that notion. All of us, I don’t care who we are, are gonna crash. It’s the nature of the beast.
My wish for you is that you panic less than I did—and that you work the problem more.